The Real Sarah Palin
JUNEAU, Alaska, By Nick Jans — I sat on the bank of the Kobuk River in northwest arctic Alaska on a mid-September morning. Upstream somewhere, wolves were howling — their chorus filling the silence, close enough that I could hear the aspiration at the end of each wavering call. Behind me, the slate-gray heave of the Brooks Range spilled off toward the north, the shapes of some peaks so familiar I’ve seen them in my sleep. The nearest highway lay 250 miles away. This is the Alaska where I spent half my life, and the only place that’s ever felt like home — the land of Eskimo villages, waves of migrating caribou and seemingly limitless space.
Though I was beyond the reach of the Internet and cellphones, and life was filled with rutting bull moose, incandescent autumn light and fresh grizzly tracks, I knew that thousands of miles to the south, the rest of the country was getting a crash course on our governor, Sarah Palin — someone who believes that climate change isn’t our fault; is dead set against a woman’s right to choose; has supported creationism in the schools; and was prayed over by a visiting minister at her church to shield her against witchcraft.
How was I to explain to all my lower 48 friends and writing colleagues how such a person could have been elected to lead our state — let alone been chosen to possibly become vice-president? Truth be told, I was as startled as anyone when I heard the news. At first I thought the McCain campaign’s announcement was some sort of bad joke.
In the broadest sense, Palin is a poseur. Alaska is too large and culturally diverse (it’s only a bit smaller than the entire lower 48 east of the Mississippi, and once was divided into four time zones) to be summed up by some abstract, romanticized notion. And even if it could be, it sure wouldn’t be symbolized by Palin. “The typical Alaskan? She couldn’t be farther from it,” says Alaska House Minority Leader Beth Kertulla.
Still, Palin is a genuine Alaskan — of a kind. The kind that flowed north in the wake of the ’70s oil boom, Bible Belt politics and attitudes under arm, and transformed this state from a free-thinking, independent bastion of genuine libertarianism and individuality into a reactionary fundamentalist enclave with dollar signs in its eyes and an all-for-me mentality.
Palin’s Alaska is embodied in Wasilla, a blue-collar, sharp-elbowed town of burgeoning big box stores, suburban subdivisions, evangelical pocket churches and car dealerships morphing across the landscape, outward from Anchorage, the state’s urban epicenter. She has lived in Wasilla practically all her life, and even now resides there, the first Alaska executive to eschew the white-pillared mansion in Juneau, down on the Southeast Panhandle.
Folks in the Mat-Su Valley, as the area is known, overwhelmingly support their favorite daughter’s policies — including a state-sanctioned program where private pilots chase down and kill wolves from small aircraft, and another that favors oil drilling offshore in the arctic sea ice and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These same voters forage at McDonald’s and Safeway in their hunter camouflage, and make regular wilderness forays up and down the state’s limited highway grid with ATVs, snowmobiles and airboats in tow behind their oversize trucks. Sometimes I imagine I can hear the roar echoing across the state, all the way to the upper Kobuk, where easements for the highways of tomorrow are already staked out across the tundra.
Like many Alaskans, I resent Palin’s claims that she speaks for all of us, and cringe when she tosses off her stump speech line, “Well, up in Alaska, we….” Not only did I not vote for her, she represents the antithesis of the Alaska I love. As mayor, she helped shape Wasilla into the chaotic, poorly planned strip mall that it is; as governor, she’s promoted that same headlong drive toward development and despoilment on a grand scale, while paying lip service to her love of the place.
As for that frontierswoman shtick, take another look at that hairpiece-augmented beehive and those stiletto heels. Coming from a college-educated family, living in a half-million-dollar view home, basking in a net worth of $1.25 million, and having owned 40-some registered motorized vehicles in the past two decades (including 17 snowmobiles and a plane) hardly qualifies Palin and her clan as the quintessential Joe Six-Pack family unit — though the adulation from that quarter shows the Palins must be fulfilling some sort of role-model fantasy.
Palin can claim to know Alaska; the fact is, she’s seen only a minuscule fraction of it — and that doesn’t include Little Diomede Island, the one place in Alaska where you actually can see Russia. So she can ride an ATV and shoot guns. Set her down in the bush on her own and I bet we’d discover she’s about as adept at butchering a moose and building a fire at 40 below zero as she is at discussing Supreme Court decisions. And that mountain-woman act is only the tip of a hollow iceberg.
Palin, and by extension, the McCain campaign, has hijacked our state for political purposes, much to the chagrin of the tens of thousands of Alaskans who loathe what she stands for. Her much-touted popularity among residents has eroded over the past six weeks to somewhere in the mid-60s — not exactly what you’d expect in support of a home girl making a White House run.
There are no doubt a variety of reasons for this decline, but many Alaskans are embarrassed — not just by her, but for our state and for ourselves. What’s with the smug posturing, recently adopted fake Minnesota accent, and that gosh-darn-it hockey mom pitch? Maybe it plays well in Peoria (and presumably Duluth), but it’s all an act. “She’s definitely put on a new persona since she’s been a vice-presidential candidate,” says Kertulla, who has worked closely with Palin for the past 18 months. “I don’t even recognize her.”
Affectations aside, there’s plenty about Palin we Alaskans do recognize, and all too well. She’s already proven to us that her promises of transparent government, attendant to the will of the people, are bear pucky. We know about her private e-mail accounts and her systematic obstruction of the Alaska Legislature’s investigation of the so-called Troopergate scandal. But let’s turn to her environmental record, where a similar pattern of obfuscation continues.
First, Palin pushed hard, along with sport hunting and guiding interests, to help defeat a ballot initiative that would have stopped the state’s current aerial wolf control program, which had been criticized by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council for flawed science. Now her administration has pointedly refused to respond to repeated public information requests (I’m one of the petitioners, and a potential litigant), regarding the apparently illegal killing of 14 wolf pups at their dens on the Alaska Peninsula this spring by state personnel, including two high-level Department of Fish and Game administrators. A biologist at the scene admitted to an independent wolf scientist that the 6-week-old pups were held down and shot in the head, one by one. This inhumane practice, known as “denning,” has been illegal for 40 years. But a simple request for information on the details of this operation, including to what extent the governor was involved in the decision, has resulted in a typical Palinesque roadblock and a string of untruths.
Our I-love-Alaska governor was also instrumental in defeating a ballot initiative to stop development of a gargantuan open-pit mine incongruously known as Pebble near the headwaters of the most productive salmon watershed in the state, Bristol Bay. The current mine design calls for building the world’s largest earthen dam to hold back an enormous lake of toxic waste — this in a known earthquake zone. Crazy stuff, yet Palin openly opposed the initiative, in lock step with international mining corporations that invested millions of dollars in a misinformation campaign.
But Palin’s certified anti-environmental whopper is her lawsuit against the Bush administration (of all outfits) for listing polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. She claimed Alaska’s own experts had completed a review of the federal data and concluded that the listing was uncalled for. The truth was, state biologists had come to the opposite conclusion. But that report was never released, and her researchers had a gag clamped on them. Palin simply didn’t want anything to get in the way of offshore oil drilling in moving pack ice — where there is no way to contain, let alone clean up, catastrophic spills.
Whenever science or rules get in Palin’s way, she blows them off. Says homesteader Mark Richards, co-founder of the Alaska Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (a moderate conservation group), “Palin, like Governor Murkowski before her, is part and parcel of the good-ol-boy network that says, ‘Alaska is open for business.’”
Want to talk to Sarah? As governor, she has been accessible only on her carefully chosen terms, a trend we’re now witnessing on the national stage. And how about those Katie Couric moments when she drifts just a skosh off a well-rehearsed script? Are those a recent phenomenon, brought on by all this new information, pressure and the liberal-gotcha media? Nah. She’s been spouting “political gibberish” (to quote gubernatorial opponent Andrew Halcro) since she arrived on the Alaska scene. Yet somehow she continues to get away with it.
In the end, Palin’s attempt to cash in on the Eau d’Alaska mystique as she supports its destruction sickens those of us who do love this land, not for what it will be some day, after the roads and mines and pipelines and cities and malls are all in, but for what it is now. What we see before us is the soul of an ambitious, ruthless, Parks Highway hillbilly — a woman who represents the Alaska you probably never want to meet, and the one we wish never existed. That said, we’re all too willing to take her back. The alternative is just too damn frightening.
Censorship at the EPA
EPA Tells Its Staff: Don’t Answer Watchdogs’ Queries
The Environmental Protection Agency has told its staff not to answer questions from the agency’s internal watchdog, news reporters or the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, according an internal memo that an environmental group released Monday.
The June 16 memo to the staff of the EPA’s enforcement division told them that if they’re contacted by the EPA inspector general’s office, an independent internal watchdog that monitors the agency, or by the Government Accountability Office, the investigators who work for Congress, they’re to forward the call or e-mail to a designated person.
“Please do not respond to questions or make any statements,” it adds. The memo sets down the same procedure, with different contact people, for queries from reporters.
EPA spokeswoman Roxanne Smith wouldn’t say whether any specific incident triggered the memo, but said it was consistent with existing policies and intended to coordinate responses.
John Walke, a former EPA air pollution attorney, said the inspector general’s office ordinarily has unfettered access to agency employees so they can speak candidly and anonymously.
The memo appeared as the Senate Environment and Judiciary committees are trying to get EPA to release information about its global warming policies, and after EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson declined to testify this week before the two committees.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said last week that he was instructing the EPA inspector general’s office to investigate whether there was any wrongdoing in failing to cooperate with Congress.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility obtained the memo and released it to reporters.
“The intent was to control any unscripted release of information to an investigator or to a reporter,” said Jeff Ruch, the director of the environmental group. “We’re not sure what the specific triggering event was, but there’s so much chum in the water that they were certainly biting at something.”
The EPA’s Smith said that Robbi Farrell, the chief of staff of the enforcement division, sent the memo to managers in her office “to ensure consistency and coordination” among staffers who respond to the inspector general and the congressional investigators. It will help with “tracking and record-keeping obligations,” Smith said in a statement.
Smith also said the procedure was developed in part as a response to a 2007 inspector general report about follow-ups on audits at EPA. That report, however, didn’t critique EPA staff members’ contacts with reporters and investigators.
“There is nothing in the procedure that restricts conversation between enforcement staff, the press, GAO and the IG and the procedure is consistent with existing policies,” Smith’s statement said.
But Walke, who worked for the EPA as an attorney from 1997 to 2000 and now works for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “If the agency has advance notice of who they want to talk to and about what, it allows them to do spin control and manage the damage fallout.”
The EPA inspector general’s office conducts audits, evaluations and investigations of the EPA and its contractors “to promote economy and efficiency and to prevent and detect fraud, waste and abuse,” its Web site says.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has criticized Johnson for not testifying about alleged White House interference with the EPA. Boxer has called on Johnson to release a finding the EPA prepared and sent to the White House in December that found global warming endangers the public welfare.
“Stephen Johnson is turning the EPA into a secretive, dangerous ally of polluters, instead of a leader in the effort to protect the health and safety of the American people,” Boxer said in a statement Monday in response to reports about the memo.
A copy of the memo as released by PEER:
/US 06/16/2008 11:22 AM
Subject PLEASE REMIND STAFF re: RESPONDING TO GAO, IG AND PRESS
Please remind your staff at your next staff meeting of the following policies and procedures.
1. If you are contacted by a reporter, please forward the call or email to Laura Gentile and Roxanne Smith, cc Robbi. Please do not respond to questions or make any statements.
2. If you are contacted directly by the IG’s office or GAO requesting information of any kind, please forward their call or email to Gwen Spriggs, cc Robbi. Please do not respond to questions or make any statements.
Thanks very much for your continued attention to these important procedures.
New Gag Rules against Federal Scientists
Federal climate, weather and marine scientists will be subject to new restrictions as to what they can say to the media or in public, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Under rules posted last week, these federal scientists must obtain agency pre-approval to speak or write, whether on or off-duty, concerning any scientific topic deemed “of official interest.”
On March 29, 2007, the Commerce Department posted a new administrative order governing “Public Communications.” This new order covers the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which includes the National Weather Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Commerce’s new order will become effective in 45 days and would repeal a more liberal “open science” policy adopted by NOAA on February 14, 2006.
Although couched in rhetoric about the need for “broad and open dissemination of research results [and] open exchange of scientific ideas,” the new order forbids agency scientists from communicating any relevant information, even if prepared and delivered on their own time as private citizens, which has not been approved by the official chain-of-command:
- Any “fundamental research communication” must “before the communication occurs” be submitted to and approved by the designated “head of the operating unit.” While the directive states that approval may not be withheld “based on policy, budget, or management implications of the research,” it does not define these terms and limits any appeal to within Commerce;
- National Weather Service employees are allowed only “as part of their routine responsibilities to communicate information about the weather to the public”; and
- Scientists must give the Commerce Department at least two weeks “advance notice” of any written, oral or audiovisual presentation prepared on their own time if it “is a matter of official interest to the Department because it relates to Department programs, policies or operations.”
“This ridiculous gag order ignores the First Amendment and disrespects the world-renowned professionals who work within Commerce agencies,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Under this policy, National Weather Service scientists can only give out name, rank, serial number and the temperature.”
The agency rejected a more open policy adopted last year by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The new policy also was rushed to print despite an ongoing Commerce Office of Inspector General review of communication policies that was undertaken at congressional request.
While claiming to provide clarity, the new Commerce order gives conflicting directives, on one hand telling scientists that if unsure whether a conclusion has been officially approved “then the researcher must make clear that he or she is representing his or her individual conclusion.” Yet, another part of the order states non-official communications “may not take place or be prepared during working hours.” This conflict means that every scientist who answers an unexpected question at a conference puts his or her career at risk by giving an honest answer.
Logic According to Wingnuts
Florida Lab Manager Screwed for Doing His Job
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is seeking to punish a laboratory manager because the water pollution data he reported was not ambiguous enough, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The data in question concerns pollution levels in most of South Florida’s key water-bodies, including the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie Estuary.
In a letter dated January 3, 2007, Kevin Neal, who has since resigned as Director of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Southeast District, charged Thomas White, the manager of the agency’s Port St. Lucie laboratory, with “generating and reporting deceptive or fraudulent lab results” solely due to his lab’s low usage of “Data Qualifiers,” descriptions of data limitations. Despite use of words like “fraudulent,” DEP is not contending that any data entered by White’s lab were falsified or manipulated – only that certain technical codes were not appended.
White’s lab showed water pollution levels so high that, in some cases, samples had to be substantially diluted just to get them on scale for instrument concentration determination. These profound pollution levels make the issue of Data Qualifiers largely irrelevant to the purpose for which the data is used – establishing whether water-bodies are considered impaired for purposes of the Clean Water Act.
If DEP persists in indicting all of the Port St. Lucie lab work, more than five years of detailed water quality monitoring data on virtually every large South Florida canal, estuary and other watercourses will be invalidated. This would dramatically set back efforts to reduce pollution in places like the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee, as the main evidence these bodies exceeded pollution limits would be thrown out.
“These charges are utterly ridiculous; in essence, DEP is saying that the water pollution numbers are too awful to be true,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney, whose organization is putting together a defense team for White. “Unfortunately, Tom White is collateral damage in a deranged effort by top DEP management to disrupt critical water pollution tracking systems.”
White became manager of the Port St. Lucie lab in 2004. Under White, the lab, for the first time, won certification from the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Conference (NELAC). White, who has worked for DEP for 20 years, virtually all in agency laboratories, is one of the auditors DEP has used to review the work of other labs.
The charges against White are especially curious in that all of the information needed to add any Data Qualifiers have been entered into the system during White’s tenure, so that all the lab reports could be supplemented as needed. White contends that the reporting methods he used were mandated by his predecessor and never countermanded in the years since.
“We are asking Governor Crist’s office to take a long look at this before the case proceeds any further,” Phillips added. “DEP has become a cesspool in need of a thorough cleaning and the managers behind these charges should be the first people asked to leave.”
National Park Service Still Forced to Lie
Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah’s flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
“In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is ‘no comment.’”
In a letter released today, PEER urged the new Director of the National Park Service (NPS), Mary Bomar, to end the stalling tactics, remove the book from sale at the park and allow park interpretive rangers to honestly answer questions from the public about the geologic age of the Grand Canyon. PEER is also asking Director Bomar to approve a pamphlet, suppressed since 2002 by Bush appointees, providing guidance for rangers and other interpretive staff in making distinctions between science and religion when speaking to park visitors about geologic issues.
In August 2003, Park Superintendent Joe Alston attempted to block the sale at park bookstores of Grand Canyon: A Different View by Tom Vail, a book claiming the Canyon developed on a biblical rather than an evolutionary time scale. NPS Headquarters, however, intervened and overruled Alston. To quiet the resulting furor, NPS Chief of Communications David Barna told reporters and members of Congress that there would be a high-level policy review of the issue.
According to a recent NPS response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by PEER, no such review was ever requested, let alone conducted or completed.
Park officials have defended the decision to approve the sale of Grand Canyon: A Different View, claiming that park bookstores are like libraries, where the broadest range of views are displayed. In fact, however, both law and park policies make it clear that the park bookstores are more like schoolrooms rather than libraries. As such, materials are only to reflect the highest quality science and are supposed to closely support approved interpretive themes. Moreover, unlike a library the approval process is very selective. Records released to PEER show that during 2003, Grand Canyon officials rejected 22 books and other products for bookstore placement while approving only one new sale item — the creationist book.
Ironically, in 2005, two years after the Grand Canyon creationist controversy erupted, NPS approved a new directive on “Interpretation and Education (Director’s Order #6) which reinforces the posture that materials on the “history of the Earth must be based on the best scientific evidence available, as found in scholarly sources that have stood the test of scientific peer review and criticism [and] Interpretive and educational programs must refrain from appearing to endorse religious beliefs explaining natural processes.”
“As one park geologist said, this is equivalent of Yellowstone National Park selling a book entitled Geysers of Old Faithful: Nostrils of Satan,” Ruch added, pointing to the fact that previous NPS leadership ignored strong protests from both its own scientists and leading geological societies against the agency approval of the creationist book. “We sincerely hope that the new Director of the Park Service now has the autonomy to do her job.”
Bureau of Reclamation Tries to Fire Biologist for Doing His Job
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has proposed to fire a biologist after finding emails he had sent to environmentalists and to other agencies, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In its letter of proposed termination, the agency alleged the “subversive” activity of communicating with “environmental organizations which are opposed to Reclamation generally and adversarial in nature” justifies immediate removal.
Charles (Rex) Wahl, a GS-12 Environmental Specialist, has been on paid administrative leave for the past three months while the agency continues to ponder his fate. Shortly after Wahl was notified of his proposed firing on September 18th, the Bureau of Reclamation also dismissed his wife Cherie from a temporary clerk-typist position.
Ironically, Wahl’s main duty in Reclamation’s Yuma Area Office was to keep stakeholders, including environmentalists, abreast of agency “actions and initiatives” as required under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In addition to his contact with environmentalists, Wahl is also charged with revealing “administratively controlled information” to other federal agencies.
“These charges are both insulting and illegal,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who is leading Wahl’s legal challenge against any proposed disciplinary action. “Public servants cannot be fired simply for telling inconvenient truths.”
In May, Wahl (who had earned excellent performance evaluations) had transferred to Reclamation’s Albuquerque Office. In August, Reclamation discovered the emails Wahl had sent months earlier as it cleared the hard drive of his computer.
Wahl’s disclosures concern an array of proposed Reclamation projects on the Lower Colorado River. He also revealed that Reclamation had falsified material in a permit it submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In addition, Wahl suggested to environmentalists that they obtain certain agency reports through the Freedom of Information Act.
“Federal employees are not required to swear bureaucratic omert� – silence at the expense of the public interest,” Dinerstein added. “Part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s problem is that it apparently regards environmentalists as enemies. Contrary to its paranoid posture, Reclamation is required to be forthright about the implications of what it is doing.”
Reclamation is under no deadlines to act on Wahl’s case. Facing a short statute of limitations on filing complaints, however, PEER has initiated an investigation into the matter by the U.S. Department of Labor under the whistleblower provisions of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Solid Waste Disposal Act.
Why the Rethugs Bombed
Whiskey Fire sums it up succinctly:
Let’s Be Clear
A lot has been said already about the ‘06 elections, and a lot more will be said. Most of this will be crap. So let me just be clear:
The Republicans lost the ‘06 elections because they are crazy people with shitty policies that have all failed.
Crucial to any analysis of yesterday’s results must be the fact that they started a war based on bullshit, and then they quite literally made a bloody mess of it.
Also, they’re completely corrupt and incompetent, self-righteously religious, willing to gay bait and race bait, and generally all they do is tell lies and act like total weasels and whine about the phony bugbear of the “liberal media.”
Please alert Cokie Roberts.
(image: Project for the Old American Century)
Majikthise notes this from MyDD: each of the following links reports a story that illustrates the cretinous behavior and "values" of the associated rethuglican candidate. HTML source code to put this list on your blog is here.
--AZ-Sen: Jon Kyl
--AZ-01: Rick Renzi
--AZ-05: J.D. Hayworth
--CA-04: John Doolittle
--CA-11: Richard Pombo
--CA-50: Brian Bilbray
--CO-04: Marilyn Musgrave
--CO-05: Doug Lamborn
--CO-07: Rick O'Donnell
--CT-04: Christopher Shays
--FL-13: Vernon Buchanan
--FL-16: Joe Negron
--FL-22: Clay Shaw
--ID-01: Bill Sali
--IL-06: Peter Roskam
--IL-10: Mark Kirk
--IL-14: Dennis Hastert
--IN-02: Chris Chocola
--IN-08: John Hostettler
--IA-01: Mike Whalen
--KS-02: Jim Ryun
--KY-03: Anne Northup
--KY-04: Geoff Davis
--MD-Sen: Michael Steele
--MN-01: Gil Gutknecht
--MN-06: Michele Bachmann
--MO-Sen: Jim Talent
--MT-Sen: Conrad Burns
--NV-03: Jon Porter
--NH-02: Charlie Bass
--NJ-07: Mike Ferguson
--NM-01: Heather Wilson
--NY-03: Peter King
--NY-20: John Sweeney
--NY-26: Tom Reynolds
--NY-29: Randy Kuhl
--NC-08: Robin Hayes
--NC-11: Charles Taylor
--OH-01: Steve Chabot
--OH-02: Jean Schmidt
--OH-15: Deborah Pryce
--OH-18: Joy Padgett
--PA-04: Melissa Hart
--PA-07: Curt Weldon
--PA-08: Mike Fitzpatrick
--PA-10: Don Sherwood
--RI-Sen: Lincoln Chafee
--TN-Sen: Bob Corker
--VA-Sen: George Allen
--VA-10: Frank Wolf
--WA-Sen: Mike McGavick
--WA-08: Dave Reichert
Science Ignored, Again
from the NYT:
The Bush administration loves to talk about the virtues of “sound science,” by which it usually means science that buttresses its own political agenda. But when some truly independent science comes along to threaten that agenda, the administration often ignores or minimizes it. The latest example involves the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to reject the recommendations of experts inside and outside the government who had urged a significant tightening of federal standards regulating the amount of soot in the air.
At issue were so-called fine particles, tiny specks of soot that are less than one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair. They penetrate deep into the lungs and circulatory system and have been implicated in tens of thousands of deaths annually from both respiratory and coronary disease. The E.P.A., obliged under the Clean Air Act to set new exposure levels every five years, tightened the daily standard. But it left unchanged the annual standard, which affects chronic exposure and which the medical community regards as more important.
In so doing, the agency rejected the recommendation of its own staff scientists and even that of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Council, a 22-member group of outside experts that had recommended a significant tightening of the standards. Stephen Johnson, the agency administrator, claimed there was “insufficient evidence” linking health problems to long-term exposure. He added that “wherever the science gave us a clear picture, we took clear action,” noting also that “there was not complete agreement on the standard.”
One wonders how much evidence Mr. Johnson requires, and how “complete” an “agreement” must be before he takes action. A 20-2 vote in favor of stronger standards seems fairly convincing to us; likewise the unanimous plea for stronger standards from mainstream groups like the American Medical Association.
The environmental and medical communities suspect that the administration’s main motive was to save the power companies and other industrial sources of pollution about $1.9 billion in new investment that the more protective annual standard would have required. But here, too, the administration appears to have ignored expert advice. Last Friday, the agency released an economic analysis showing that in exchange for $1.9 billion in new costs, the stronger annual standards could save as many as 24,000 thousand lives and as much as $50 billion annually in health care and other costs to society. Studies like these always offer a range of possible outcomes, but even at the lower end — 2,200 lives and $4.3 billion in money saved — the cost-benefit ratios are very favorable.
In the next year or so, the administration must decide whether to tighten the standards for another pollutant, ground-level ozone, which causes smog and is also associated with respiratory diseases. The scientific advisory committee has tentatively recommended that the ozone standard be tightened, citing new evidence of smog’s adverse effects. This time Mr. Johnson should pay more attention to the scientists and less to the political strategists in the White House.
The Shame of NASA’s Nobel
from the NYT (slightly altered to better reflect reality):
NASA is basking in the glow of a Nobel Prize awarded to one of its scientists and to a Berkeley astronomer for research performed on a satellite built by NASA. The award is richly deserved, and the agency deserves great credit for making the work possible. Too bad the program that yielded these pioneering discoveries was
reined in eviscerated not long ago so that NASA could pour billions of dollars into resuming shuttle flights, finishing the international space station, and developing spacecraft to pursue the Bush administration’s ambitious bogus space “exploration” program.
The research that won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was performed using instruments aboard the Cosmic Background Explorer, or COBE satellite, which was launched in 1989. Huge teams of government and academic researchers measured and analyzed the cosmic microwave background radiation that permeates the universe. Their findings provided strong support for the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe, and turned cosmology, previously rather speculative, into a precise science. The discoveries have been hailed as one of the greatest scientific advances of the past century.
The COBE satellite was part of NASA’s Explorer Program, which uses small satellites to conduct important studies that don’t need gigantic, costly space platforms. Yet these and similar small-scale missions were disproportionately cut to free up money for
more grandiose political programs. The Nobel award suggests that NASA needs to rebalance its portfolio, a task the agency says (cough, cough) is in progress.
EPA Flying Blindfrom PEER:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is unable to reliably assess the state of the environment or gauge its own effectiveness, according to a compilation of outside reviews by the agency’s Inspector General released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Unfortunately, these weak spots will likely suffer further from pending Bush administration budget cuts.
Dated August 16, 2006, the report by the EPA Office of Inspector General was done at the request of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works with an eye toward possible reorganization of the agency. The report assembles all recent reviews of agency organization and effectiveness conducted by entities such as the National Academy of Public Administration, the Government Accountability Office, as well as other private and public assessments.
The overwhelming consensus of these reviews was that inadequate information and fragmented scientific work precluded meaningful evaluation of both EPA’s present structure as well as possible reorganizations. Troubling findings cited by the Inspector General include –
- “EPA does not have the data to support its positions on the state of the environment or to measure the success of its programs”;
- “EPA’s information systems have incomplete and untimely data”; and
- EPA lacks a “clear identification and prioritization of the most important scientific questions to be addressed.”
“Right now, EPA is flying blind,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the agency is spending millions on a public relations campaign to burnish the “corporate image” of its science program even as it cuts research support. “EPA scientists describe a deliberate attempt by its current leaders to ‘dumb down’ the agency and marginalize research so it cannot be applied to any topic of controversy.”
While the deficiencies found in the reports summarized by the Inspector General have roots in earlier administrations, the actions of the Bush administration almost seemed designed to aggravate them:
- Investment in EPA science has steadily decreased to the point where the chair of EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board believes that the agency no longer fields a coherent scientific research program;
- EPA is slashing its network of technical research libraries; and
- Suppression of politically inconvenient scientific findings and rewrites of technical reports for non-scientific reasons have become commonplace.
“While Congress is not known for being a fact-based institution, it needs to reinvest in environmental information and research before it wades into any attempt to reshuffle the deck chairs at EPA,” Ruch added. “The question is whether there is sufficient political support behind rebuilding EPA’s basic scientific capabilities.”
EPA Begins Closing Libraries and Public Access
EPA BEGINS CLOSING LIBRARIES BEFORE CONGRESS ACTS ON PLAN — End of Public Access to Technical Holdings as Original Collections Shuttered
Washington, DC —The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is moving ahead this summer to shut down libraries, end public access to research materials and box up unique collections on the assumption that Congress will not reverse President Bush’s proposed budget reductions, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At the same time, EPA’s own scientists are stepping up protests against closures on the grounds that it will make their work more difficult by impeding research, enforcement and emergency response capabilities.
In an August 15, 2006 document entitled “EPA FY 2007 Library Plan,” agency management indicates that it will begin immediately implementing President Bush’s proposed budget cuts for the next fiscal year, which begins in October, without waiting for Congress to act. The memo describes what EPA terms “deaccessioning procedures” (defined as “the removal of library materials from the physical collection” ) for its network of 26 technical libraries. Under the plan—
- Regional libraries, located in Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City, serving 15 Midwestern and Southern states will be closed by September 30. Other regional library hours and services will be gradually reduced;
- Public access to EPA libraries and collections will end as soon as possible;
- As many as 80,000 original documents which are not electronically available will be boxed up (“put their collections into stasis,” in the words of the EPA memo) and shipped for eventual “digitizing.”
EPA scientists represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal employee union, had previously sent a “Demand to Bargain” on the issue, but EPA managers dismissed that demand as premature. The August 15th EPA memo, however, shows that the union concern was far from premature. On August 16, the AFGE National Council of EPA Locals filed a formal grievance demanding that all library closures be put on hold until affected scientists can negotiate the matter as required in the collective bargaining agreement, writing:
“After October 1, 2007, three Regions will no longer have a physical library at all. Library hours or core library services will be reduced in other Regions that keep their physical libraries open. Management has been insisting that it can effectively ‘do more with less,’ and continue to provide the same level of library services to all of EPA’s staff members despite the reduction in the number of library contractor staff. The Council is not convinced that this is the case.”
“The central fiction is EPA’s promise to digitize its entire massive collection, making everything available online someday, without any dedicated funds amid sharply reduced budgets,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting EPA studies show the cuts will actually lose money due to additional professional staff time that will have to be spent tracking down research materials now assembled by the libraries. “The idea that library closures are a purely budgetary move is increasingly hard to swallow.”
A key tenet of the new plan is that all research requests will be centrally controlled. The plan calls for “discouraging establishment of divisional or branch mini-libraries” so that central staff can “have knowledge of [the] location” of all research materials. In a mass letter of protest signed this June by representatives for 10,000 EPA scientists and researchers, more than half the total agency workforce, employees contend that the library plan is designed to “suppress information on environmental and public health-related topics.”
“What is going on inside EPA is positively Orwellian,” concluded Ruch.
The Political Corruption of Science
By Gene C. Gerard
Unions representing thousands of scientists and other specialists employed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently complained that EPA officials are ignoring science. The unions indicated that agency administrators are allowing numerous toxic substances to be used in agricultural pesticides. This revelation comes on the heels of a survey of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientists which found that the agency has become so political that it’s no longer protecting public safety. While all presidential administrations, by their very nature, are political, it’s increasingly clear that the Bush administration is using politics to corrupt science.
Nine unions comprised of 9,000 EPA scientists maintained that multiple agricultural pesticides are dangerous for pregnant women, children, and the elderly. In a letter to EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson, union leaders indicated that agency officials seem to believe that “the concerns of agriculture and the pesticide industry come before our responsibility to protect the health of our nation’s citizens.” An EPA scientist warned that the agency often ignores scientific studies that disagree with industry-funded studies. This isn’t surprising, given that the EPA’s own inspector general acknowledged earlier this year that the agency had failed to protect children from pesticide exposure.
Late last month, the Union of Concerned Scientists released the disturbing results of its survey of FDA scientists. The survey was sent to almost 6,000 FDA scientists, of whom about one-fifth responded. The responses revealed that 20 percent had been asked explicitly by FDA administrators to provide incomplete, inaccurate or misleading information to the public. And 60 percent of the scientists reported that commercial interests have inappropriately induced or attempted to induce the reversal, withdrawal or modification of FDA actions.
Almost 20 percent of FDA scientists in the survey indicated that they had been asked, for non-scientific reasons, to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or conclusions in a scientific document. There was ample evidence of this in 2004 when the FDA prevented an agency scientist from publicly criticizing antidepressants. In February of that year agency officials prevented Dr. Andrew Mosholder from testifying at a public hearing on the increased risk of suicide among children who take antidepressants.
Dr. Mosholder conducted an FDA review of 22 studies on children and antidepressant medication. He concluded that these children were twice as likely to become suicidal. After being slated to present his findings at a public hearing, FDA officials removed him from the agenda. In the fall of 2004, a Congressional committee discovered that agency administrators forced Dr. Mosholder to delete data regarding the risks of antidepressants from documents he submitted to Congress. Essentially, FDA officials put the health and safety of America’s children at risk by promoting the interests of the pharmaceutical industry. But that shouldn’t be shocking, given that drug makers spent $158 million in 2004 to lobby the Bush administration, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Almost half of the FDA scientists in the survey indicated that the agency isn’t effectively protecting public health. The FDA’s involvement in the now discredited drug Vioxx is glaring proof of this. Dr. David Graham, the associate director of the FDA Office of Drug Safety, complained in 2004 that officials attempted to suppress the results of his study on Vioxx. He found that as many as 139,000 people had suffered heart attacks or strokes and approximately 55,000 people died as a result of taking the drug.
Ironically, late in 2004 the manufacturer of Vioxx, Merck, removed the drug from the marketplace after clinical studies demonstrated an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. According to Dr. Graham, the FDA is “virtually incapable of protecting America.” Merck made almost half a million dollars in political contributions in 2004, with 70 percent going into Republican coffers. It seems likely that the FDA’s actions toward Vioxx were attributable to politics.
More than half of the agency’s scientists who participated in the survey reported that the FDA doesn’t routinely provide complete and accurate information to the public. The agency was certainly guilty of this concerning its involvement with the drug Ketek. In 2001 an FDA panel recommended its approval to treat pneumonia, although the panel had concerns about potential liver damage. Consequently, the drug’s manufacturer, Sanofi-Aventis, agreed to conduct a study of the drug’s effect on the liver. It was later discovered that the study was fraudulent.
However, FDA officials continued to cite the study as proof that Ketek was safe, and in 2004 the drug was approved. Earlier this year, the agency’s Office of Drug Safety found 110 cases of liver problems related to Ketek, including cases of liver failure and death, and recommended that it be withdrawn from the market. And agency scientists estimated that the drug caused liver failure at approximately four times the rate of other antibiotics. Despite all these warnings, FDA administrators approved of clinical trials using the drug on children as young as six months old.
The complaints of scientists at both the EPA and the FDA are serious and troubling. And there seems to be little doubt that their accusations are valid. The Bush administration is consistently placing political and industry interests ahead of sound science. As a result, the health, safety and welfare of the nation are being compromised.
Fiddling While the World Burns
OVER THE PAST two weeks, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee has held a pair of truly senseless hearings on global climate change. The purpose was not to figure out how to cut carbon emissions. It wasn’t even to discuss the science of global climate change in general. Instead, the purpose was to pick at a single study of global temperature patterns, the so-called “hockey stick” graph—a trend line that purports to show a sudden and dramatic increase in global temperatures in the 1990s and therefore looks like a hockey stick. The graph is hardly central to the modern debate over climate change. Yet the subcommittee has investigated the scientists who dared produce it and hounded them for information. Now that a study of the graph by the National Academy of Sciences has largely backed up the hockey stick findings, the committee has been holding hearings to attack it some more.
A more responsible House hearing on climate change, held by the Government Reform Committee, revealed the utter frivolity of investigating the hockey stick. Even the Bush administration—which is actively avoiding regulation of carbon emissions—took pains to acknowledge the science of climate change. Speaking on behalf of the White House, James L. Connaughton made clear that global warming is real and that human causes are at least partly to blame.
In fact, the broad contours of climate science are a matter of considerable consensus. Increasing atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases traps additional energy, which tends to cause warming of the Earth’s surface. The actual concentration of carbon in the atmosphere has increased enormously since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. And average global temperatures have risen in recent decades, an effect that is amplified significantly in the polar regions. The major outstanding question about global warming is not whether adding large amounts of new carbon to the atmosphere will tend to increase temperatures further. It is how sensitive the climate will be to what mass of additional carbon over time—and how bad the practical consequences of that sensitivity will be. On this point, there exists vigorous scientific debate. But it’s a debate to which congressional committees are laughably ill-suited to contribute.
The reality is that nobody knows how bad global warming will be; responsible estimates vary from manageable to catastrophic. So the prudent move is to take action now as a kind of insurance policy. Yes, reducing carbon emissions substantially is a daunting prospect given American and world dependence on fossil fuels—so daunting that it induces a kind of denial in many people. But it is a particularly ugly kind of denial that leads a congressional committee to spend this kind of energy attacking scientists, instead of confronting the problems their data suggest.